The year is 1998 and America is flat broke. Paper currency is now worthless and, to the joy of Ron Paul supporters everywhere, all transactions are done in gold. After the country ran out of oil, people started using skateboards and bicycles for transportation and many turned their cars into homes. While the citizenry spends their time consuming a steady diet of sitcoms and reality television, the government tries to figure out how to pay back the loan that it took from Sam Birdwater (Chief Dan George), a Native American who made billions after buying Nike. Birdwater wants his money back and he is prepared to foreclose on the entire country.
Newly elected President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) is not helping. A combination of Jack Tripper and Jerry Brown (who was gearing up to challenge Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primaries when Americathon was first released), Chet Roosevelt is a spaced-out former governor of California who speaks in 70s self-help slogans and who is more interested in getting laid than leading the country. Roosevelt governs out of The Western White House, a condo in California. When an ad exec named Eric McMerkin (Peter Reigert) suggests a month-long telethon to raise the money to pay off the loan, Roosevelt leaps at the chance.
Hosted by Harvey Korman, the telethon (which is called, naturally, the Americathon) features a wide variety of acts. There’s a ventriloquist. Jay Leno boxes his grandmother. Meat Loaf destroys a car. Even Elvis Costello and Eddie Money make brief appearances. While Chet falls in love with one of the performers, his chief-of-staff (Fred Willard) plots, with the leaders of a new Middle Eastern superstate, to sabotage the telethon.
Based on a play by the Firesign Theater, Americathon has a big, talented cast that is let down by Neal Israel’s uncertain direction and a script that is only rarely funny. The idea of America hosting a tacky telethon to pay its debts sounds like a good SNL skit (especially if Bill Murray played the host) but the premise is too thin for a feature film. Like Airplane! or The Naked Gun films, Americathon is a movie that tosses every joke it can against the wall to see what will stick. If the jokes are good, like in Airplane!, that formula can lead to a comedy classic. If the jokes are bad, not even John Ritter, Harvey Korman, and Fred Willard can make them funny.
Today, if Americathon is remembered, it’s because it supposedly predicted several future events. Americathon does take place in a future where China is an economic superpower, Nike is a huge conglomerate, and reality game shows are very popular. But, even with those correct predictions, Americathon is a such a film of its time that it was probably dated from the minute that it was released. Just the sight of John Ritter in a condo permanently marks Americathon as a film of and about the ’70s.
George Carlin does score a few laughs as the narrator and Elvis Costello performs both Crawlin’ To The USA and (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea. Eagle-eyed viewers might want to keep an eye out for the tragic Playboy playmate, Dorothy Stratten, who has a brief non-speaking role. Otherwise, Americathon is as hopeless as the country it’s trying to save.